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The University of Southampton
Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute

SMMI expert Blair Thornton to use autonomous techniques to survey decommissioned offshore infrastructure in the North Sea

Published: 23 June 2020
Blair Thornton
Blair Thornton

A NERC project Autonomous Techniques for anthropogenic Structure Ecological Assessment (AT-SEA) was funded at £900k with £200k to SMMI’s Blair Thornton. The collaborative project will deploy the National Oceanography Centre’s Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) Boaty McBoatface equipped with the UoS BioCam seafloor visual mapping instrument to survey de-commissioned offshore infrastructure in the North Sea. Although AUVs normally are deployed from ships for missions lasting <24h, this project will deploy and recover the AUV from shore, where it will travel close to 1000km over 10days to survey 3 sites with no ship support. Research challenges will include generating remote awareness of the AUV’s condition and seafloor observations over low bandwidth satellite communications. Demonstrating this capability without a crewed research ship to support operations offers significant cost and carbon emission savings, and will pave the way for more scalable autonomous operations for decommissioning of offshore oil and gas infrastructure in the future.

Thousands of Oil & Gas industry structures in the sea are approaching the end of their lives. At this time, they typically need to be removed and the environment returned to a safe state. This process is known as decommissioning. As many of these sites are old (typically 20+ years) and originally were drilled before the current environmental regulations existed, there has often been some contamination of the seabed around these sites. To ensure that no harmful effects will occur, decommissioning operations need to be supported by an environmental assessment and subsequent monitoring. Monitoring may be required over many years after decommissioning, especially if some structures are left in place. Monitoring surveys in the offshore environment are expensive and time-consuming, requiring ships and many specialist seagoing personnel. This requirement, although vital, will have a considerable cost for industry and the public. Ocean robots, which use computer systems to carry out survey missions by themselves, are regularly used in detailed scientific assessments of the environment. As they collect very high-quality data quickly, such robots have recently been adopted for some tasks by industry but these still require an expensive support ship as they are not capable of long-range missions. Recent technological developments have cut the cost and expanded the range of these robots to thousands of kilometres, making it possible for long-range assessments of multiple sites to be undertaken with a robot launched from the shore. This would have many advantages, improving the quality and quantity of environmental information while cutting the costly requirement for a survey ship and crew. We will carry out the first fully autonomous environmental assessment of multiple decommissioning sites. The Autosub long-range ocean robot submarine ("Boaty McBoatface") will be launched from the shore in Shetland, visit and carry out an environmental assessment at three decommissioning sites in the northern North Sea, before returning around 10 days later with the detailed survey information onboard. The robot will take photographs of the seabed, and these will be automatically stitched together to make a map of the seafloor, structures present, and the animals that live there. Established sensor systems will measure a range of properties of the water, including the presence of oil and gas. As well as the decommissioned sites, the robot will visit a special marine protected area where we know there are natural leaks of gas, to check the robot can reliably detect a leak if it did occur. On return to shore, the project will examine all the data obtained and compare it to that gathered using standard survey ship methods. We will test if the same environmental trends can be identified from both datasets to determine if the automated approach would be a suitable replacement for standard survey ship operations.

The project will also produce a fully documented case study, which includes detailed information on the costs and benefits, practical information on deployments and approaches to reduce the risks and improve the efficiency of operations. This will be used by industry, scientists and government regulators, to demonstrate the techniques and will provide the necessary information to potential users to aid in their adoption. The overall goal of the project is to improve the environmental protection of the North Sea at a reduced cost and to demonstrate how this leading UK robotic technology could be used worldwide.

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